The Musical Genius of Trent Reznor


My musical tastes will come as no surprise to anybody familiar with my writing. I don’t pretend Trent Reznor is some obscure underrated artist either, I unashamedly love a great many widely celebrated musicians like Trent, Bjork, The Glitch Mob and so on.

I live in Portland, the largest single hipster hive in the country, so maybe I’m just pushing back against that attitude by flaunting my appreciation for a mixture of both well known and lesser known musicians. I’ve never pretended to like anybody’s music just because they were obscure.

Trent got my attention for the first time, as with many in my generation, by writing the soundtrack for the original Quake. The first track is some ruthless, grinding, screeching, hellish metal. But every track after that is deeply unsettling, droning ambiance well suited to a game about fighting your way through a nightmare dimension.

It was sort of a disappointment when the next game, despite the surreal industrial cyborg-horror theme (which would later inspire The Grinding) was scored by Sonic Mayhem instead of NIN. It proved just as good a fit, but there were parts of the game that received a thumping techno-metal track which would have been better served by Trent’s vaguely threatening black ambient style.

I only became really invested in NIN during a breakup. There’s so much music out there that’s basically just a dude melodically whining to some girl that’s left him set to accoustic guitar. Coldplay is an example of the sort of stuff that didn’t really speak to me during that period. I didn’t feel bittersweet melancholy; I felt bleak, visceral horror.

Nine Inch Nails captured it so perfectly that I was rattled by it. As if Trent lived inside my head during that time. I relish moments like that, when art reveals an intimate glimpse into someone’s psyche, and you recognize much of what you see/hear from the inside of your own head, despite never having shown it to anybody.

It’s thrilling, and proves the commonality of certain human experiences, which made me feel woven into the tapestry of humanity again during a time when I was painfully detached from it. He articulated, perfectly and in such excruciating detail, every aspect of every feeling which follows rejection and abandonment by someone you have irreversibly invested the tender core of your being into.

The various stages of coping are represented in his work, some songs focus on a particular stage more than others. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance…Consider the line ”This is all a dream…none of you are real. I’d give anything…I’d give anything” from ‘Head Down’:

It’s made more poignant where he says that it’s been so long since then, he no longer recognizes his own face, or anything about his life. He’s still stuck back then, but has aged against his will into a future body and world he wants no part of.

This feeling of surreality, that what’s happened is just a nightmare you might still awaken from is also captured well in ‘Right Where It Belongs’. It’s a song which inspired the story “The Background of Your Memories”, ultimately a tale about the difficulty of accepting the reality that someone close to you has died, and inability to move on.

The song ‘Only’ reads to me as an attempt to rebuild his shredded ego from the remaining scraps. Still squarely in the ‘denial’ category, the lyrics assert that she never really existed, and is just a character he imagined for masochistic purposes. A lot of the feelings on display in his work are very ugly, but honest. It would be less powerful if it weren’t so candid.

The passage of time distorts when depressed. Everything drags on and becomes a samey grey smear. I wrote “The Slog” to capture this feeling, but perhaps it’s expressed even better in the song “Every Day is Exactly the Same”. He does a lot of interesting things with his voice in this one.

The same theme of grinding, banal repetition is also explored in Copy of A. Easily my favorite track from Hesitation Marks, it expresses musically a feeling of hellish recursion. Of lifeless, pointless repetition of the same routine over and over, as in Every Day is Exactly the Same. It has a manic, empty robotic quality to it.

Leaving Hope is a good example of a song of Trent’s which fits unambiguously into the ‘acceptance’ category. It evokes the feeling of watching some great, spectacular event which will never occur again slowly receding in the rear view mirror with a mixture of despair and bitter nostalgia.

It’s likened in Year Zero, by metaphor, to the apocalypse. The end of a relationship is in many ways the end of the world, if only for one of you. Blowing it up to this scale, while melodramatic, makes smaller details of how it feels for your world to fall apart easier to scrutinize and savor…if you’re into that sort of thing.

In the ‘anger’ category, arguably with one foot in ‘bargaining’ territory as well, we have ‘All the Love in the World’ wherein Trent laments that having left him, she is bombarded by interested men she has no reservations about replacing him with, while he is still hung up on her and wants to be alone. That’s how I interpreted it, anyway.

The Becoming chronicles the changes he lamented noticing in himself throughout the ordeal; that everything she used to love about him, and indeed everything he liked about himself had disappeared. A grotesque backdrop of partially human screams underscores that the metamorphosis taking place is desperately unwanted.

A Warm Place is aptly titled, as it evokes feelings of comfort and safety sorely lacking after the future you had planned bursts into flame before your eyes. After that it’s a tedious painful trek through a cold, barren concrete plain in search of anywhere warm and soft that can make even some faded shadow of your happiness return, however briefly.

1,000,000 is a musical rendition of the feeling of detachment from the real world common to the depressed. ”I feel a million miles away…I don’t feel anything at all”. So often these gutting, morose words are the lyrics to songs that are almost unfittingly energetic, but then it can’t be said that NIN has nothing you can dance to.

Hurt is one of his best known songs, dealing with themes like his heroin addition (“The needle tears a hole…the old familiar pain”) and not wanting anybody new to love him, to put their hopes in him when he feels sure that he’ll let them down.

It surprises many people I talk to that it’s Trent’s song. Johnny Cash did such a stellar cover of it, that’s where most people know it from, and Trent even considers it Johnny’s song now.

Nine Inch Nails tracks are similar to the artwork of H.R. Giger and Zdzislaw Bekinski in that each seems to fill in more and more of a “big picture”. Recurring elements woven throughout all of it, a consistent if also dreamlike logic confirms for me that they all depict their own contiguous, fully realized worlds.

The twangy, gritty, metallic industrial sounds in NIN speak to me of a world with no softness. No moisture or color. Only concrete, asphalt and rusted metal. A world which is painfully cold and vast, with no refuge to be found. I envision dangling chains, howling wind and the constant thumping and churning of distant, unseen machinery.

It’s a world we have all been to at some point in our lives. Accessible only through deep suffering, as alluded to in Only:

>”Well the tiniest little dot caught my eye and it turned out to be a scab
And I had this funny feeling like I just knew it’s something bad
I just couldn’t leave it alone, I kept picking at the scab
It was a doorway trying to seal itself shut, but I climbed through

>Now I am somewhere I am not supposed to be
I can see things I know I really shouldn’t see
Now I know why, now, now, now I know why
Things aren’t as pretty on the inside”

A world we trap *ourselves* in. While we are still struggling with what has happened, thrashing around in shock. When the shock fades we are left curled up, quivering, like a soft little marshmallow creature that’s been fed through a shredder. Still tender and raw, having inexplicably survived what ought to have been the end.

…Only to come out on the other side of it in a blinkered, disheveled stupor, astonished that you’re still alive and life goes on. The beautiful fatalism of Trent’s music bears out my view that of all human emotions, sadness has the most depth to it, with fear a close second. There’s so much to explore you can get lost doing so, even become comfortable there by some strange definition of the word.

But there is no escape in that direction, only death. However endless it seems, however valuable a resource for authentic emotion to draw upon when writing, your trajectory while traveling through it is a downward spiral…even if that’s not immediately apparent. You won’t find a way out by going deeper and deeper into it.

It’s someplace to visit when you’ve been broken into tiny pieces. Someplace calm and quiet where you can sort through those pieces and begin the laborious process of putting yourself back together.

Trent’s music is the most fitting soundtrack for this process imaginable, at least for me. Nothing else fully embodies the horror of something unthinkable forced on you, and the reluctant, tearful acceptance of what your life will necessarily be from now on as a result.

But when reassembly completes and you’re emotionally back on your feet, it’s time to return to reality. There is no future for the caterpillar which never leaves its cocoon. It’s a slim comfort, but still one I treasure, to know that someone knows exactly what it was like. The emotional equivalent of fingernails dragged across a blackboard forever, what seemed at the time to be the end of the world.

But then, the word apocalypse does not actually mean the destruction of the world; it means “sudden revelation/realization”. The passing away of everything you knew, to be replaced with something new and different. With that shift in perspective it becomes possible to embrace the change, however severe. Even if it means that the old you dies, and someone else takes over from there.

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